Prior to his London stage debut at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Caroline Bishop learns there’s more than one thing to know about Scott Bakula.
Let’s get it out of the way. The first – and possibly only – thing that most Brits of a certain age know about Scott Bakula is that he starred as that time-travelling, body-swapping, life-fixing doctor of science, Sam Beckett, in the hugely popular early 90s American television programme Quantum Leap. It is the reason his casting in the Menier Chocolate Factory’s new play Terrible Advice attracted so much attention. It’s the reason theatre hacks like me want to talk to him. But when I do, I quickly realise that there’s a lot more to this 56-year-old American actor than that high-profile five-year period in his life.
For starters, there’s the fact that his appearance on the London stage should be no surprise at all. Bakula, it turns out, is a Tony-nominated theatre actor for whom stage always trumped telly in his affections. Who knew? Well, the Menier Chocolate Factory obviously did, casting him in this racy comedy about two couples by Canadian actor-turned-playwright Saul Rubinek. Bakula, in turn, knew all about the Menier Chocolate Factory. “The last few years the Tony Awards have been about musicals that have come over from the Chocolate Factory, and I’m a musical theatre guy so that definitely caught my attention.” Wait, musical theatre? Yes, Bakula isn’t just an actor, he’s a singer too.
But there will be no singing in Terrible Advice. In this play about two couples who have some “pretty big issues,” Bakula plays Jake, the stay-at-home partner of Caroline Quentin’s Hedda. “He takes care of her, her garden; he cooks, he takes care of her physical needs. He’s very happy, or thinks he’s happy, being with her, and living with her and off her at the same time. And his best friend [Stanley], played by Andy Nyman, they are kind of inseparable guys, and we find out in the first scene of the play that Jake has done something pretty hurtful to [Stanley] that [he] never knew about, and the play goes from there.”
While many Brits know little about Bakula beyond the obvious, the transatlantic divide also meant Bakula knew little about his British and Irish co-stars before joining them over here. “You know them. They are all a revelation to me,” he says of Nyman, Quentin and Pulling’s Sharon Horgan, who completes the quartet.
He has been asked to perform on the London stage before, mostly, he says, in musical theatre pieces, but either the dates didn’t work or the project wasn’t right. It took the alchemy of this play – “when I read it I thought it was very interesting, very darkly comedic, great strange characters” – combined with the Menier’s reputation and the relatively short length of the contract to entice him away from his home in LA. “I’ve got two boys at home, one’s 15 and one’s 12 and it’s very hard to be away from them right now.”
“When I read it I thought it was very interesting, very darkly comedic, great strange characters”
Like television, LA sort of crept up on him. He grew up in St Louis, Missouri, where life was all about singing Beatles covers in grade-school bands, from where “I found my way into stage musicals and fell in love with those.” Deciding that theatre was what he wanted to pursue, on graduating he headed for America’s theatre capital, New York. “[I] never intended to be on television or in movies. I was just strictly going to be a theatre actor and see if I could survive in New York City. So this other part of my career has been somewhat of a surprise to me and has taken me away, in a great sense, from the theatre for a lot of years.”
After a decade in New York, he went to LA for a television project, but the Big Apple drew him back for the job that was not only his biggest stage role to date, but was to earn him a Tony nomination. But his time in Romance, Romance in the late 80s was to prove a watershed in his life, both personally and professionally. It was during his time in the show that he started to experience vocal problems. “It started out as a physical thing and then it became a mental thing. I was on Broadway and I had to do eight shows a week and I had to figure out how to get through it. The longer I was doing it the more difficult it became for me.”
Soon after, he was cast in Quantum Leap, and although the TV programme did offer opportunities for singing, on the whole it provided an escape route from this mental block. The all-consuming nature of filming the show, taking movie parts during the season breaks and setting up his own production company meant there was no time to go back to New York for musical theatre. “It pretty much got me locked into the LA scene.” A pop psychologist might say it was partly an avoidance tactic, too. “I wasn’t dying to get back into the singing world because I knew that I wasn’t right,” he says. Speaking about the times he sang on Quantum Leap he comments: “It was still being brought up to me periodically a couple of times a year, ‘oh yeah your voice isn’t where you want it to be… you’ve gone backwards in your singing’, and I wasn’t happy about that.” But he now sees this as a positive, as it protected him from taking a job he wasn’t ready for. “It kept me focused on it and kept me away from pursuing anything else that would have gotten me in trouble or would have been the end of my career in musical theatre because it was like, ‘he can’t sing any more’. So I was lucky that… I was aware of it but I didn’t get pushed into something that could have been a wrong choice.”
“I never intended to be on television or in movies. I was just strictly going to be a theatre actor”
Eventually his wife sent him to a voice teacher. “I changed my whole approach to singing and it was kind of like a rebirth,” he says. Not only did it restore his vocal abilities, but he feels it improved them. “Short of children it’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever had in my life. It really changed my life. Because that’s what I am, I’m a singer.”
That was around 14 years ago. When, in 2005, he finished his four-year stint as Captain Archer in Star Trek: Enterprise – the other television role we know him for – Bakula took steps to get back to singing on stage, with a role in Shenandoah in Washington DC. “It was the first big thing that I’d done that I knew was going to be a real opportunity to get back in and see where I was vocally and get rid of all that trauma that I’d carried around for so many years.”
Since then he’s appeared on stage several times in LA, including a production of Guys And Dolls. He still has a voice lesson once a week, but he’s got his mojo back. “I’ve done a bunch of singing in the last five years, in public,” he laughs, “and in some big situations and it’s worked out great. I’m really happy that I’ve been able to bring that back into my life.”
Nevertheless, his hiatus from musical theatre was by no means negative for his career as a whole. Besides his Golden Globe-winning performance in Quantum Leap, a show he says he is very proud of, he has built up a list of film and television credits in the US which has given him the variety he craves. “Because I’m a theatre guy I always felt like the beauty of theatre was that most of the time you could play anything, because the camera’s not telling the audience that you’re lying. You get those chances in the theatre and you don’t get them always on television and in the film world. So I feel really fortunate, I’ve done a great variety of roles in all the different mediums.”
“I changed my whole approach to singing and it was kind of like a rebirth”
Among his highlights he cites working with Sam Mendes on hit film American Beauty and Hellraiser director Clive Barker on Lord Of Illusions. More recently, he’s starred in US sitcoms Men Of A Certain Age and Chuck, and took a small part in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! alongside Matt Damon, which he describes as “one of the great experiences of my life”.
“We were just silly,” he reflects, grinning widely. “Aside from Matt and myself and one or two other actors, he [Soderbergh] populated the whole movie with stand-ups. You put a bunch of stand-ups in the same room, they are all trying to be funnier than the other guy, so we just sat around and laughed the whole time.”
Now he’s hanging out with funny people Horgan, Quentin and Nyman, I imagine he’s doing much of the same. “Yes we’re laughing a lot. We’re trying not to laugh a lot, we’re trying to work. But it’s fun. Look,” he adds, “we’re so lucky to do this for a living. There are so many people that have many more difficult things to do.”
With the trauma of his vocal problems behind him, Bakula has plenty to feel lucky about at the moment, not least the chance to prove his theatre credentials to London audiences. Now I know so much more about him, I can’t wait to see this actor where he feels he really belongs, treading the boards on stage.